Lens on Lifelong Learners – Back to School for Career Progression

Lifelong learners or adult learners fall into a few different categories, but the broadest ones are those who have been displaced from their current careers for whatever reason (as covered in our previous article) who have an urgent need to reskill or upskill to reenter the workforce and preserve their means to make a living. The second, and the topic of this article, is the group of lifelong learners that want to upskill or reskill to advance in their current career, switch careers, or prepare for potential displacement that may be on the horizon.


The one advantage this group of learners has over the already displaced group is time, and therefore options. However, this lack of urgent need can work against this type of learner, causing them to procrastinate or suffer from an overload of choices. This can lead to them putting off their additional education until they become a part of the first group, and are forced to make a decision under pressure.

So who are these learners, how do we reach them, and what are their choices?

The Career Lifelong Learner

What we know about the COVID-19 crisis in relation to career transitions is two-fold. The first is that the pandemic disrupted industries on the verge of change, and forced those changes to happen more rapidly. In fact, according to a McKinsey global survey on reskilling, not only do we need workers who are future-ready, but new skills are needed to support digital and remote work which has become the norm for many careers.

The second outcome is that many workers reevaluated their careers and what they are doing. Is this the career they wanted? Are they happy? Can they adapt to the new skills needed? What is the future of this career path, and is it viable long term? How many people has this affected?

In 2019, workers were already quitting their jobs in record numbers and looking to make career changes. According to Prudential Financial’s Pulse of the American Worker survey, as the effects of the pandemic diminish, 26% of workers are looking to leave their job. Of those, 80% are concerned about career advancement. But perhaps more significant, 72% said the pandemic caused them to rethink their current skill set. More than half have sought new skills training during the pandemic. The medical field is taking an especially hard hit. Post pandemic, 1 in 3 doctors want to leave medicine.

The other revealing factor: most are looking for jobs that are more flexible, and around half of those who intend to stay in their jobs say if their company does not continue to offer remote and flexible options, they too will look for work at a company that does.

This is also not an isolated survey. Envoy’s Return to the Workplace Report reveals that 47% of workers would leave their job if employers don’t offer a hybrid or remote work model, and 41% would even take a pay cut to get the flexibility they want.

The question is, can they? What education and job options do they have? The answer to those questions is a little more complicated.

The Employer Response

This trend has brought an interesting dilemma to light for employers. Not only is there the often discussed skills gap that must be addressed but there is also the issue of employee satisfaction and the additional challenge of remote worker onboarding, retention, and the management of the company culture at a distance.

The McKinsey report shows that employers refocusing on skill-building more than they ever have before. In fact, 69% of employers are focusing more on skills building, more than redeploying, hiring, releasing employees, or even contracting work rather than handling it in-house.

From the lifelong learner perspective, this could be great news. Why do we say could be? Because the real question for the learner is, “What does this training mean to me?” How does this training turn into currency that I can use to advance in my current position or seek a new one?”

The truth of the matter is that the days of a lengthy career with one company are for the most part over. An average employee changes jobs every 4.6 years, and for those who are 25-34, it is 3.2 years. For employers, it is important for them to realise this is the norm, and adapt to it accordingly. But for the learner, what it means is that any certificate or credential received from an employer must somehow be transferable and verifiable.

What does this mean to our lifelong learner with the time and opportunity to pursue additional training?

The answer is options. But how does a leaner determine what option is right for them?

Back to School vs. Micro-Credentials vs. Company Training

Our hypothetical learner has options. To sum them up as simply as possible, they are:

  • Pursue a higher degree or a certificate through traditional frameworks, like a Master’s Degree, a PSM Certificate, or even a mini or compressed Master’s program offered by some schools.
  • Pursue industry or skill-specific micro-credentials, such as those offered by IBM, Google, or through platforms like Udemy and others.
  • Pursue internal company training options, in the hope that even if they were to take another job elsewhere, their new employer would be able to validate the skills and training they bring with them.

Each has their pros and cons. A traditional degree or certificate program usually takes more time than smaller, compact courses, but can provide the learner with a broader array of transferable skills depending on the program. Typically, if the student must finance these courses themselves, they are also more expensive.

Micro-credentials can also be a good option. The learner can “stack” several credentials to learn and verify the skills they need for a position or industry. The McKinsey report also revealed that soft skills like leadership, critical thinking, decision making, and project management are a higher priority to many employers than “hard skills” that can be learned on the job and adapted as needed.

The primary con to micro-credentials, as things stand now, is that there is no decentralized and universally recognised framework that makes the learned skills both verifiable and transferable, although much work is being done in this area. For example, an IT company can decide that a micro-course offered by Google qualifies a learner for employment with them, while one offered by IBM or a particular Udemy course does not.

Internal company education and training come with identical problems. It is often paid for by the employer, offered internally, and works for career advancement as long as the learner continues to work for “X” company. However, when the learner leaves, the credentials they’ve earned are not always transferable.

The proliferation of choices can be as much a downside as it is an advantage. The learner must weigh their decision based on their current situation, and their potential career future, weighing factors that may be as yet unknown. So how do educators help this learner?

The Role of the Educator

As we turn our Lens on Learners, there are three critical roles that work together to determine the viability of any potential “solution” to the dilemma these learners face:

  • The Learner: the learner must know and understand their options when it comes to reskilling or upskilling, and must have enough information to understand how any learning they undertake can be turned into “job currency”.
  • The Employer: The employer must understand the framework education “hangs” on, how to verify skills apart from traditional frameworks, and additionally how to make the skills they teach their own employees both transferable and verifiable.
  • The Educator: The educator must speak to both the learner and the employer, providing both with information about education frameworks, credentials, badges, and what those mean. The learner must be given the power to “take their learning” with them in a format such as a CLR/LER or digital wallet/passport that can be quickly and easily verified and understood by the employer.

Many learners choose more traditional education frameworks when they have time and the option to pursue them simply because they are better defined than many micro-credentials. An MBA from Harvard or Cambridge means something on a resume, where a leadership skills certificate from elsewhere may mean less to an employer. This is even true when employers use AI as their initial resume screening tool. While that leads to a discussion all its own, as machine learning can introduce bias just as humans do, illustrated by the failed Amazon AI screening tool, there is also bias toward more “well-defined” credentials like traditional degrees.

One of the greatest challenges for learners is to navigate the various frameworks available to understand what they are getting in exchange for the time and potentially the money they invest in obtaining any kind of credential.

The Takeaways

For the lifelong learner who has both time and options, the takeaways are rather simple, really. The COVID-19 situation showed people who were simply floating along and hesitant to make career changes that life is short, and if you don’t make changes now, as the famous Warren Miller quote goes, “You’ll be one year older when you do.”

Everyone from doctors to stockbrokers and thousands of financial sector employees began to reevaluate career choices, and employers began to understand the skills gap was not the only problem they faced. Now dozens of industries from construction to restaurants and retail are struggling to find qualified workers willing to work for the wages offered in relation to the skills required. Jobs that were labelled “menial work” became instead “essential workers.”

The shift that had already begun in many industries accelerated, and a previously unfelt urgency began to motivate change. That same urgency brought alternatives to traditional education frameworks into the spotlight, in this case, motivated by desire rather than immediate need.

Learners who have not yet been displaced but are looking for change have begun to understand a few lessons:

  • There are viable alternatives to traditional education frameworks.
  • Any credential or degree they pursue needs to provide them, and potential employers apart from their current one, value.
  • Hard skills can be learned. Soft-skills are more likely to transfer from one position or company to another.
  • What companies are looking for from applicants is changing, and the learner’s approach to education must change with it.
  • Companies also have to “re-hire” their employees every day, investing in workforce development like never before.

These lessons apply to learners of all types, from those who have been displaced and have a true, immediate need motivating urgent action, and those who simply want something better for themselves and their future, and are driven instead by a desire rather than an immediate need.

It pays to keep this in mind as we turn our lens on other learners as well. While situations may be different, the solutions we are looking for are surprisingly similar. A skills-based curriculum, transferable and verifiable credentials, and a new view of education and what it means are all a part of the new way forward, and real solutions to not only the skills gap, but the many other challenges learners face in a new, and constantly evolving market.

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Credentialate assesses, monitors, promotes and validates learners’ attainment of evidence-backed skills, supporting the transition from learner to earner. It is a secure, configurable platform that assesses and tracks attainment of competencies and issues micro-credentials in a digital badge to students.

If you’d like to learn more about Credentialate, we invite you to Learn More or Schedule a Demo.

Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace

In this blog series, we will focus on the key Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace – who they are, what drives them and what challenges and opportunities they face.

  • Edalex Blog Series - Stakeholders in the Modern Credential Marketplace Lens on Learners – how can micro-credentials help today’s learners achieve their education and employment goals?
  • Lens on Educators – if micro-credentials are driving a shift in how education providers approach skill development, how are they responding and what impact does it have?
  • Lens on Employers – how are companies responding to the need for work-specific skills and how are micro-credentials impacting on their ability to verify candidate skills?

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